Commentary Magazine


Liberty & the Intellectuals

There can be no question that Norman Gall (p. 45) is right in saying that the “literary reputation” of the Cuban Revolution has been very seriously damaged in the past year or two and that this in itself constitutes an important political event, quite apart from whatever changes in the actual policies of the Castro regime may or may not have provoked it. The books Mr. Gall discusses, especially those by René Dumont and K. S. Karol, do indeed signify the growth of a newly critical and even hostile attitude toward the Cuban Revolution among a certain class of intellectuals all over the world.

I say “a certain class” because there are intellectual circles in which the reputation of the Cuban Revolution began to fall as early as the early 1960′s. Writing in this magazine in February 1962, for example, Dennis H. Wrong spoke of the alarm such critics as Theodore Draper, Daniel M. Friedenberg, Michael Harrington, and other “old anti-totalitarians of the Left” felt at the suppression by Castro of “freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to a fair and open trial, freedom of the press, the right to maintain free trade unions independent of government control.” Nevertheless it is probably true to say that until very recently Castro’s apologists outnumbered his critics among the intellectuals of Paris and outnumbered them as well, though no doubt to a lesser extent, among the intellectuals of London and New York.

But a statistical description like this puts the case much too mildly and even misleadingly, for it does not begin to suggest the intensity and vividness of pro-Castro sentiment among those intellectuals of the Left who came to share in it. “You were,” said Norman Mailer in an Open Letter to Castro written not long after he had come to power and published originally in the Village Voice, “the first and greatest hero to appear since the Second War.” Sentiments barely less extravagant were expressed by C. Wright Mills, Jean-Paul Sartre, and dozens of younger literary people like Kenneth Tynan, Warren Miller, and LeRoi Jones, who were associated with what only just then was beginning to be widely known as the New Left. Some of this euphoria was dampened and some of Castro’s early support faded or disappeared entirely as the “new humanist socialism” for which he was believed to stand began looking more and more like the old totalitarian socialism of the Soviet Union and China. But apologists continued to insist that Cuba was different or, if not entirely different, justified in being similar by the exigencies of revolution and by the dangers of American intervention.

As the 60′s wore on, moreover, and as the ethos of the New Left increased in influence, a mystique of violent revolution acquired a correlatively greater and greater force with the radical intellectuals of the West and those of the young under their tutelage. Among other things this led to the beatification of Che Guevara as the saint of revolution and of Castro himself as the great sponsor of popular uprisings against “imperialism” throughout Latin America and the inspiration for such uprisings in the rest of the “Third World” as well. Some, incredibly enough, even found him relevant to the situation in the United States. In the climate of the mid- and late 60′s, this new reputation more than compensated the Castro regime for the loss of lustre it had suffered in the eyes of other intellectuals of the Left whose sympathies did not embrace the suppression of political freedom and the stifling of the right of dissent even, or perhaps especially, when done in the name of socialism. (Thus Irving Howe in a recent issue of Dissent: “The central lesson of politics in our century has been that any regime that suppresses democratic liberties has no right, political or moral, to the designation of ‘socialism.’ . . .”)

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A year or so ago, however, a change in attitude toward Castro was beginning to become evident among intellectuals for whom the Cuban Revolution had always been “a model in the realm of socialism.” Dumont and Karol, the one an erstwhile adviser to Castro and the other an unregenerate defender of revolutionary-socialist regimes, published accounts so highly critical of the situation in Cuba that Castro denounced them as agents of the CIA. The charge was so absurd that not even Sartre was able to take it seriously. On the contrary, Sartre himself and some sixty other European intellectuals joined last May in protesting the arrest of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla and in condemning the obviously extorted “confession” he issued upon being released from prison. The whole episode, they declared, “recall[s] the most sordid moments of the era of Stalinism, with its prefabricated verdicts and its witch-hunts.”1

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How can we account for this reversal? Mr. Gall believes that the Padilla case—in combination with the increasing militarization of Cuban society to which Dumont, Karol, and other long-time defenders of the regime testify—represents an end to the “libertarian pretensions” of the Cuban Revolution and an open break with the “Western intellectual tradition.” Not being an expert on the history of the Cuban Revolution, I would not presume to argue with this judgment. Yet I cannot help wondering whether it is really Castro who has changed: whether it is he who has broken with his former supporters abroad by breaking with an “intellectual tradition” all of them once held dear, or whether the change is actually in them—in, that is, their willingness to justify and apologize for anything he might find it necessary or expedient to do. After all, as Mr. Gall himself points out, Castro’s libertarian pretensions never went so far as to prevent him from holding some twenty thousand political prisoners in jail. Nor did these same pretensions extend to permitting the open expression of opposition to his policies and actions. Conversely, up until May of this year, the old pro-Castro intellectuals continued to regard Cuba “as a model in the realm of socialism” despite the fact—a fact whose reality or whose significance they were by no means hesitant to deny—that civil and political liberties were cruelly and ruthlessly suppressed.

In short, if the imprisonment of Hubert Matos and so many thousands of others who have languished in jail for years could not arouse the libertarian ire of the radical intelligentsia of Paris and New York, why should the arrest of Heberto Padilla have done so?

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It would be pleasant to think that the answer lies in a new concern for liberty among the radical intellectuals of the West. Yet if this were the case, the signers of the protest would not be likely to say, as they still do, that the Castro regime has in the past been “exemplary in its respect for the human being.” My own guess is that the Padilla affair has served these intellectuals as a convenient pretext for jettisoning Castro and the Cuban Revolution, not for the crime of Stalinism (although the regime is certainly guilty of that) but for the crime of failure: the failure of Che’s effort to foment revolution in other Latin American countries and the concomitant failure, so graphically described in Mr. Gall’s article, to fulfill the revolution at home.

But if the Cuban Way, the way of revolutionary militancy, has failed, the Chilean Way—the way of the Popular Front, the way of alliances with other liberal and left-wing forces—has to everyone’s surprise succeeded, if not yet in consummating a revolution, at least in bringing a national Communist party to power peacefully through the electoral process for the very first time in history. We get some idea of what this extraordinary and indeed unique development means for intellectuals of revolutionist sympathies from a recent article by E. J. Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian, in the New York Review of Books. Hobsbawm sees the effort of the Allende government to travel an alternative road to “socialism” not as “a piece of political exotica” (like Cuba?) but as a “thrilling prospect and a politically valuable one.” For “socialism,” says Hobsbawm, will never come to “say, Western Europe in the Chinese or Vietnamese way”—or, as he conspicuously fails to add, the Cuban way—“but it is at least possible to recognize in Chile the lineaments of political situations that might occur in industrialized societies, and the strategies that might apply there. . . .” How can poor Castro compete with this? No wonder violence and confrontation are out; no wonder “working within the system” is in.

True to the spirit of the Popular Front, Hobsbawm stresses Allende’s devotion to political liberty, asserting that it is a principled commitment and not a tactical maneuver destined to be dropped at the first viable opportunity. Well, perhaps. Perhaps also the intellectuals who have broken with Castro and who are suddenly so full of devotion to liberty and democracy really do mean what they say and are not being tactical themselves—that is, serving political liberty because they think that doing so serves the revolution, just as they thought only yesterday that the best way to serve the revolution was to deride liberty as a bourgeois illusion or a luxury of the rich. But in view of their sorry record on these matters, those of us within the intellectual community for whom political liberty is a primary value and not a merely instrumental one, strictly subordinate to the revolutionary cause, can, I think, be forgiven our wariness, our skepticism, and our altogether ungenerous suspicion as to whether Castro’s loss of intellectual support is also liberty’s permanent gain.

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Footnotes

1 The full text of this statement was published in the New York Times on May 22, 1971.

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